Things got a little heated during those early lockdowns, as the urbanites escalated their doomsaying, and mask-shaming and the general implication that anyone who fails to socially distance is basically trying to kill grandma. Red-staters offered their own invective in return: Covid-19 fears were the mass hysteria of an effete over-class who collectively panicked at a disease not much worse than a nasty flu; or, worse, a plot ginned up by elites desperate to deny President Trump reelection; or maybe covid-19 was terrible, but only if you live in a crowded city like New York.
I am sorry to report that the blue-staters have not entirely put the past behind them to commiserate with their fellow Americans over our common affliction. New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) could cite real public health concerns when considering whether to impose a quarantine on people traveling to his state from Florida, but there’s also perhaps a little glee at the prospect of returning the favor to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R), who ordered arriving New Yorkers to quarantine in March.
Similarly, a lot of people are suddenly demanding to know how Florida could have let this happen when it had all the warning in the world. Why didn’t Arizona heed the experience of New York? What made Texas think it was special? On one level, the question is sincere, and the people asking are no doubt worried about sick and dying Sun Belters. But as in so many intra-familial disputes, that concern is tinged with grievance — and self-congratulation.
Yes, they seem to say, New York suffered worse than anywhere else in the country, but it was blindsided by a fast-moving virus. Red states had New York’s example in front of them, and plenty of time to prepare, and they wasted it. Instead, they acted as if covid-19 was someone else’s problem — as if, Stanford professor Keith Humphreys remarked, one could safely swim in the “no peeing” section of the pool. Whatever we suffered, they imply, at least we couldn’t have known what was coming.
But let’s remember that it isn’t just red states — California, which locked down along with its blue-state brethren, is also experiencing a spike. Moreover, to the extent that denialism is to blame, red states are not the only ones that dabbled in that sort of delusion. New York, too, had more warning than it used. Officials could have acted earlier, shut down much more thoroughly and probably prevented thousands of unnecessary deaths. That the city and state governments did not was a product of magical thinking among public health officials and politicians, who saw what was happening in Wuhan, China, in the winter and somehow decided that the real threat was seasonal flu, or racism, or panic, rather than the deadly coronavirus that was even then spreading silently here.
True, New York had only a few examples of how bad things could get, while Texas and Arizona saw events play out across much of the globe. But then, Texas, Arizona, Florida and a dozen other states had to leap a peculiar psychological hurdle that New Yorkers didn’t: their own experience. People in those places were inundated with dire predictions of the outbreaks sure to follow their much-photographed spring-break beach parties or Easter church services. The threats repeatedly fizzled, so they rushed to reopen while states that had been hit harder stayed locked down.
In hindsight, those governors probably wish they’d kept restrictions tighter, just as in hindsight, I’d bet that Bill de Blasio wishes he’d locked down New York City in early February. But it’s not really all that strange to act as if things are different where you are when they actually are different. In fact, it’s quite hard for a government to maintain draconian public health policies to control an outbreak that’s raging a thousand miles away.
If you live in a blue state and still find this incomprehensible, ask yourself whether your city should lock down again, now that Texas, Arizona and Florida seem to be soaring out of control. For what was true for them, then, is true for us, now: No matter how far away the virus seems, it’s as close as the next flight or road trip. If they are us, three months ago, then there’s a good chance that we will be them, three months hence. Either we all control this thing, or we all fail to; in this pool, we float or sink together.